Till a few years back, girls from Russia and East European countries dominated dance bars in the Middle East. Now, they’re outnumbered by bar girls from India, mostly Mumbai.
In August 2005, the Maharashtra government implemented a ban on dance bars with the passing of the Police (amendment) Bill, 2005. While the government succeeded in shutting down dance bars, it failed to rehabilitate the women who earned their livelihood at these bars.
A bar owner from Borivli says that the ban led to a 50% drop in business, thus forcing them to look for other avenues to make money. So they send their girls abroad on ‘assignments’. A bar owner from Andheri says that three girls from his bar left for Dubai a few months back. This happens all the time at other Mumbai bars too, he adds.
Given the demand for Bollywood numbers oversees, Indian bar girls are now being trafficked to dance bars that are frequented by top executives, Arabs and expatriate Indians — mostly Keralites.
Suraj M, a Dubai-based banking professional who frequents these bars says, “Earlier, I used to see girls from Eastern Europe, but now, a majority of them are Indians.”
Not just the girls, their pimps too are Indian and Bangladeshi, says Dubai-based software engineer, Noor Manseel Mohammad. He filed a complaint with the Dubai police against pimps who are forcing Indian and Bangladeshi girls to work at bars in an around Naif, Muraqqabat, Abra, and Sabk.
Noor, a Keralite himself, says that to lure the large population of Malayalee men in Gulf countries, bar owners make dancers wear traditional Kerala attire, even though it’s “obvious that these girls are non-Malayalees”. Says Suraj, “It’s unusual to see how Nepali and Bengali girls are made to wear Kerala saris to attract clients.”
So how do these girls reach the Gulf? The answer: Through agents. They solicit out-of-work bar dancers at hubs like Congress house (Banarasi slum), Mira road, Banaras ki Chawl, Thane and Oshiwara. Nisha*, whose three daughters have travelled overseas on contracts, says, “Everything happens through these agents.”
Since agents arrange everything, little information is available on the procedural aspects of passport, visa and other logistics.
There are several agents involved. While one arranges the contracts, another manages the passports and visas, and a third takes care of the girls abroad, says Dr Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder of Prajwala, an anti-trafficking NGO in Hyderabad.
An employee of the travel company Thomas Cook says that getting a visa for a Gulf country is much simpler than for a European country. The girls travel on a visit visa, which is the least expensive visa and is valid for 90 days.
Earlier, Mumbai used to be the transit point for trafficking bar girls. However, with stringent regulations against allowing single, unaccompanied girls with passports that have Emigration Check Required (ECR) stamped, travelling out of Mumbai is not as easy anymore.
Mumbai no longer transit point
A dance bar owner in Borivli confirms this: “Mumbai is no longer a transit point for trafficking bar girls due to immigration officials’ harassment. Comparatively, it’s easier to send them via New Delhi, Chennai and sometimes Hyderabad.”
As per Mumbai Police records, not a single case of human trafficking was registered from Mumbai in the last one year. “We don’t know of any human trafficking network operating in Mumbai, as there have been no complaints,” says Latif Shiekh, a senior police official with the Mumbai’s special service branch.
A source at Delhi airport’s immigration department says that dance bar agents from the Gulf have formed a nexus with some airport officials, who clear visas without checking their authenticity. “Many agents fail to provide documents mandatory for travel to Gulf countries, and yet they get cleared,” he says, adding that 10-12 girls are cleared every day.
Noor says that he sees dancers arrive in mini buses at around 11pm every night. The girls are always grouped together, and the agent ensures that they don’t go anywhere without their permission. They are at the mercy of the operators, as their passports are taken away so that they cannot escape.
Through interviews with bar girls, DNA found that they are signed up for between Rs1-3 lakh, and depending on the girl’s looks and talents, can be even higher. If the contract is for Rs3 lakh, the bar girl is given 10% (Rs30,000) as advance, at the time of signing the agreement. Before the transit, the girl is given another Rs80,000. In most cases, this money goes to family members.
Most of the contracts are for three months, given the 90-day visa. Varsha Kale, President of Bharatiya Bar girls union, says, “During this time, the girl has to recover the Rs3 lakh for the agent who facilitated her ‘assignment’.”
Once she has ‘recovered’ the agreed amount, the extra money earned is divided equally between the agent and the girl. In case she fails to earn the said amount, she is forced into sex work. “In the last week of the contract, most of these girls go out with sheikhs to recover the agreed amount,” says Kale. They ask for jewellery, clothes and cosmetics in return for sex. In some cases, the girls are forced into prostitution from day one, Kale says.
Nandini*, a Bangladeshi Muslim, was blackmailed into prostitution. “The agent took away my passport and told me that he wouldn’t return it until I slept with his customers,” she says.
Lately, agents have started roping in customers from countries like the US and UK too. Travelling to these countries is considered a ‘big break’ by bar girls. “Not everyone gets the opportunity. But those who do, manage to make a quick buck,” says Priti Patkar, director of Prerana, a Mumbai-based NGO which works on issues related to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.